Federal review finds links to painkiller in more deaths

OxyContin suspected of role in 282 overdoses


An extensive federal review of autopsy data has found that the powerful painkiller OxyContin is suspected of playing a role in the overdose deaths of 282 people in the past 19 months, more than twice the number in some previous estimates. The nation's top drug enforcement official recently called the finding "startling."

The review also found that virtually all the deaths were of people who swallowed the pill whole or crushed into powder, further suggesting that OxyContin misuse might be difficult to curb. The overdose deaths were believed to have been of people who injected or snorted crushed pills, which are quicker and more dangerous forms of drug delivery.

Officials of Purdue Pharma, OxyContin's manufacturer, acknowledged in a recent interview that even after reports that OxyContin had been getting into the wrong hands, the company continued to distribute free seven-day supplies of the drug this year, through doctors, to promote its use.

The federal study on OxyContin, by the Drug Enforcement Administration, is the agency's first to explore links between overdose deaths and a name-brand drug. Past reviews had looked only at drugs' active ingredients. Besides the 282 deaths, which often also involved other drugs and alcohol, federal officials said, they found that 500 people had died since the start of 2000 from overdoses involving oxycodone, the active narcotic in OxyContin and other popular painkillers. But federal officials could not say whether the oxycodone linked to those deaths was from OxyContin, a drug to treat severe and chronic pain.

Asa Hutchinson, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, called the study's results startling and said, "This verifies the fear and concern that we have had about this drug."

Dr. Paul Goldenheim, vice president for research and development at Purdue Pharma, said the Drug Enforcement Agency's data was consistent with the company's findings. But he emphasized that none of the information implicated OxyContin in any of the reported deaths.

"There is no suggestion that the 200 subjects died from oxycodone," Goldenheim said. The study did not try to determine whether OxyContin alone was responsible for the deaths because the overdose deaths typically involved multiple drugs.

Federal officials have said abuse of OxyContin has grown faster than abuse of any prescription drug in decades. Purdue Pharma promoted the drug as safer than other narcotics because its active ingredient was in a time-release mechanism. But abusers learned that crushing the pill disarmed that feature.

Fewer than 10 of the 282 people whose deaths were associated with OxyContin were intravenous drug abusers, and only one showed signs of having snorted the drug.

That finding, federal officials said, suggests that a recent decision by Purdue Pharma to reformulate the time-released painkiller to reduce its abuse by injection or snorting might have limited benefits.

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